Contracts, time, and money: the largest issues that educators face in the world of labour

How educators are taking a stand for equality in the workforce at SFU and the Labour Day event

Educators want fairness in the workplace

By: Jess Dela Cruz, News Writer

Amongst the tourists, families, cyclists, couples, and curious wanderers, a Labour Day event hosted by the Vancouver District and Labour Council took place at the Jack Poole Plaza on September 2. Booths of various labour organizations were present, celebrating educators, union workers, hospital employees, labourers, and working people in a “free, family-friendly event filled with union booths, entertainers, and family activities” — as stated in the event poster. 

And though SFU’s own Faculty Association or Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU) were not present at this event, their message of fair labour practice for educators was still heard from the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of BC (FPSE) and the BC Teacher’s Federation (BCTF)

FPSE had a booth set up where secretary treasurer Sean Parkinson sat down with The Peak for an interview. He explained that the FSPE is “an umbrella that represents 19 post-secondary universities and colleges here in BC,” among them Capilano University, Douglas College, and Emily Carr University of Art & Design. SFU’s faculty association is represented by another provincial organization, CUFA BC (the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of British Columbia).    

When asked about what fair labour means to Parkinson, he discussed the inequalities sessional professors face when compared to permanent faculty members. He says, “We have a growing number of precarious academic faculty. Often called ‘sessionals’[ . . . ] who do, by and large, the same work as other academics but they get paid much less and they don’t have job security.”

Parkinson adds that students are impacted by not having a professor who is around full-time. He says, “Many students want to talk to their [professors]. When they encounter a sessional [ . . . ] that person may not be there to help with a letter for graduate school . . . When students make these connections they want the informal teaching as well: the mentorship [and] talking about the profession.” 

Students also frequently have a teaching assistant (TAs), who help the students understand what was discussed in lecture by leading discussion in smaller groups. They also provide guidance in student’s writing through feedback, student hours, and emails. 

 Jorji Temple is a TA for the SFU English Department and is a member of the TSSU where they serve on the contract committee, which helps negotiate the collective agreement for TAs.  The TSSU represents TAs collectively, which includes bargaining on behalf of them during contract negotiations and representing them in work-related problems. It is currently bargaining with SFU, and Temple is “part of a team of elected members who are negotiating a new collective agreement, or contract, that sets the conditions of our work.” 

They elaborate by stating, “it covers everything from pay and benefits, to how to get a job, to protections against discrimination and harassment.” 

When further asked on their position, Temple believes “a crucial part of this job is letting the SFU community know what’s happening in negotiations with SFU administration, and talking to TSSU members about what they want to change about their work.” 

However, Temple believes that “there are a few problems with the current way TA work is organized at SFU. One of them is overwork.” They further compare how TA’s in different departments are paid differing amounts. Moreso, they discuss how tutor/markers (TAs for online classes) are “generally paid less, with more responsibilities — and often little training in how to do that job well.” 

For Temple, one of the main issues is job security, which entails temporary contracts, few benefits, few or no sick days, and no pension at all. They say, “In negotiations, we’re trying to end the cycle of temporary employment that keeps people working these contracts end to end, and instead shift them into regular jobs that give them some stability.” 

As a TA in the Department of Political Science, Violeta Maria Dima expresses great passion for teaching and the connections she makes with her students. Despite the challenges of being a TA, she finds great reward when her students succeed.

Dima expands on the role of what a TA does when not in class. “To effectively manage such [ . . . ] complex demands, TA work also entails regular training, meetings, and adaptation in accordance to classroom needs . . . I not only encourage an environment of engagement within my tutorials, but I also focus on getting to know my students before I sit down and formulate lesson plans.” 

Her relationship with the TSSU is heavily focused on the Union’s Legal/Advocacy Branch in which she is a member of the Anti-Harassment Committee. In an email to The Peak, she explained how her role there is to present “key mechanisms of defence for the rights, protections, and hard-won benefits of the teaching support staff here at SFU.”

Similar to Parkinson and Temple’s responses, Dima further elaborates on the contract inequalities between full-time professors and sessional instructors. She says, “Given the degree of both uncertainty and stress that is compounded by the relatively short windows of notice given to teaching support staff, I believe that teaching contracts should be restructured so to extend for at minimum two terms.” Dima also vouches for less shared desk and office space and the creation of “an amended pay structure that better accounts for variances in course demands.” 

Not only are the problems of contracts, time, and money evident in post-secondary institutions, but within public high schools as well. BCTF also had a booth at the Labour Day event where June James, a staff member from the BCTF, agreed to have an interview with The Peak. The BCTF “is a federation and union that supports public school teachers and students in the province of British Columbia,” James says. 

She tells us, “One of the most positive changes that have been done in the last few years is our Supreme Court win [in November 2016] to the right to bargain class size and composition language in our collective agreement.” To James, this win was significant because “it meant that there was service for students with special needs, and that class sizes could not go over a certain number of students.” 

The BCTF is currently in the midst of bargaining with the NDP, though on recess as requested by the meditator. 

When asked what fair labour meant to her, James says, “Oh my! That’s a really loaded question  [ . . . ] fair means having all schools get what they need.” She recalls her experience working in an inner city high school in Surrey. The school had high levels of poverty and many students from refugee families — James’ concern was that these students should be able to have the same kinds of advantages “that the kids in West Vancouver get.” 

It is important to recognize the ongoing struggle for labourers as they face hindrances in their careers. While in the past issues of child labour, lack of overtime pay, and little to no time off were most prevelant, labourers still deal with and fight against inequalities. Better contracts, more time, and more money are the main factors that educators are fighting for in order to receive equality and fairness within the learning institutions they work within. Some of the main factors educators are still fighting for in order to receive equality and fairness include: better contracts, more time, and more money. Though many people are aware that Labour Day is a statutory holiday (and that SFU students get to stay home), what often goes unsaid is the reason why the day exists. 

The Labour Day event at Jack Poole Plaza was meant to celebrate the historical and current struggles of workers, labourers, and their families continuing to strive for equality and fair labour practices within their workplaces — not just another day off.